Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.”
Some wills are stronger than others…or perhaps they’re just simply pressed into action more often than others. That’s the case for longtime Michigan State Assistant Coach, Mike Garland, a man in his 17th year at Tom Izzo’s side…a man whose story exists long after the lights in the gym have been turned off.
“I’m a spiritual guy. I didn’t have a father myself, I grew up in my grandparents’ home, my mom was a young mother when she had me – I was born into a very, very difficult situation,” Garland told Spartan Nation in an emotional interview. “My dad - he really wasn’t even allowed to see me because of the situation, so I never knew him until I was 42 years old.”
Mike didn’t elaborate on what led his father, Quentin, to not be a part of his life for more than forty years. But it was his will to overcome those things that were missing in his life growing up that motivated him in his adult life, both on and off the court.
Before we go any further, let’s take a minute to get to know the man known as “The Bishop.”
Mike Garland began coaching in 1977, the same year he graduated from Northern Michigan, where he was teammates with his friend, Tom Izzo. After a few years outside of the sports world, his desire to teach called him back to coaching – first as the JV Coach, then as an Assistant Varsity Coach at Belleville High School, before beginning a nine-year run as the Head Varsity Coach at Belleville. He went 153-49 in those nine years, garnering numerous accolades, including the 1993-1994 Associated Press Michigan High School Coach of the Year. His Belleville teams won six Mega Red Conference Championships, four District titles, and advanced to the state tournament quarterfinals in 1991.
Mike’s first tour of duty with the Spartans came from 1996-2003. He then left to take the Head Coaching job at Cleveland State, but his time there was tumultuous. Garland went 23-60 in three seasons at Cleveland State, from 2003-2006. If you read between the lines and see beyond the record, you’ll notice that the Vikings’ win total increased in each of Mike’s three years there…this included a six-win increase in conference play during his second season, the fifth largest improvement in league history.
He was tasked with changing the culture of a Cleveland State program that was on life support…in that sense, he succeeded. But in the grand scheme, it simply wasn’t enough to wash out a 23-60 record.
Garland was fired from Cleveland State, and spent the next year as the Associate Head Coach at SMU, before deciding to come “home” to East Lansing for the 2007-2008 season.
But not everyone viewed the Vikings record under Garland as the defining factor of his tenure there. Some actually saw his time with Cleveland State as a success, including a young assistant coach at Butler.
“I thought he did a really good job at Cleveland State. Mike got that program finally moving in a good direction,” said Brad Stevens, who later became the Head Coach of Butler, and is currently in his 4th season as the Head Coach of the Boston Celtics. “Going back to Michigan State, he has done a great job, both before and upon returning. It says a lot when Tom Izzo not only wanted him, but wanted him back.”
Garland was clearly moved by Stevens’ sentiments. “I’ve known Brad for a long time – I’ve known Brad since he was just basically a kid…it doesn’t surprise me one bit that he is where he is today. But boy, that speaks volumes again. It’s unbelievable that those young kids would say that about me – I’ve got chill bumps right now.”
From a Spartans standpoint, Assistant Coach Dane Fife probably says it best – “We don’t make it to a Final Four this year without Coach G. He is an absolute great coach, and probably our secret weapon. Every staff has to have a Coach Garland. He’s our secret. We’re blessed to have him.”
“I’m almost in tears that Dane would say that,” Garland responded. “These guys are unbelievable. There’s been times when they’ve kind of come to me for advice or some conversation on a lot of different things. I’m just glad that I can be there for them. It’s about that respect, and respect is a big, big part of my life.”
Now that you have an understanding of Mike’s coaching journey, and the clear impact he’s made on the court, let’s get back to the story that would change his life forever.
“I got the itch to talk with him [his father] and to see him when I was 42, and I’m telling you, it was just something that wouldn’t leave me alone. Throughout my life, there were other times that that happened, and then it would always go away and I’d never be bothered with it…but at this particular time, it kept bothering me,” Garland said.
Mike had been back at Michigan State for about two years when that urge came upon him. After a few days of searching, with some help from an athletic office secretary named Shelley, they located Mike Garland’s father, Quentin…in a nursing home.
With a telephone number in-hand, Garland was about to reconnect a piece of his past that was haunting him. But there was only one problem…
“The moment I went to call him, I got cold feet,” he recalled.
Mike needed help. For that, Garland would turn to one of his best friends – Tom Izzo. Tom made the call, spent some time on the phone with Quentin, and before long, a time was set up to bring father and son back together.
After being college teammates back in the late 1970s, and now in his second stint as an assistant coach at MSU, Garland has been a part of every Big Ten Championship the Spartans have won under Tom Izzo, and their friendship has grown closer day-by-day.
“It was a bizarre event,” Tom Izzo admitted. “I’d heard a rumor through somebody. I contacted somebody up in Flint, and before you knew it, we had the two back together.”
“We sat there and we talked for six straight hours, and it was amazing,” Garland remembered. “He kept wanting to apologize. But I told him, at that point, I didn’t need an apology…’It was just good that we were able to get together and I was able to see your face…because I had never seen you before.’”
“He knew about me, he knew where I was, he knew what I was doing – he always said he kept track behind the scenes,” Mike recalled.
“Hey, I love the guy for it. Even though he never raised me or anything, he is my father.”
“God, I remember when he went up there…it really was one of the cooler things I got to do in life,” Izzo said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t last long enough because his father became sick then.”
Remember at the beginning of our story when Mike said he was a spiritual guy? Well, you’re about to see why.
“To make a long story short, about six weeks later…he died,” Garland said.
“There’s no question that the Good Lord led me to him. The fear pressed from my heart until I got up on my feet and decided to do something about it.”
Although Mike’s time with Quentin was brief, perhaps Tom Izzo summed it up best.
“Just think if he wouldn’t have seen him, and he would have lived the rest of his life not knowing things that he got to find out,” Izzo said. “It was one of those things you look at and say, ‘Wow, you helped make a difference,’ because it meant a lot to Mike. That’s what best friends are supposed to do.”
To wait so long for that one moment with that one person, and to only be gifted that one singular moment in time, is both terribly cruel and fantastically beautiful in the same breath. It becomes a defining moment…you can either let it break you, or you can let it lift you – take a guess which one Mike Garland chose…
“It drove me; I think that happening in my life drove me to be somewhat of the person that I am, in particular when it comes to working with young men and trying to make an impact in their lives,” Garland explained. “I don’t care who you are, I don’t care how old you are…everyone needs someone in their lives – someone that’s real with them, someone that can sit and talk with them, someone that will try to understand them, and someone that can help them.”
“For whatever reason, the Good Lord has kind of made that my ministry.”
“I had said to myself, even when I was a kid, that if I was ever in a position to help young men, in particular – but not just young men…young women, anybody – that were fatherless like I was, I was going to help them,” Mike said. “From going through that experience, I began to understand the power and the need to have a father.”
But the man that Mike Garland is, and always was, is not solely defined by who or what he didn’t have. He’s characterized by who and what he did have…his mom.
“Everybody loved him…they just cared about him,” his mother, Verda, told Spartan Nation about her son. “He cares for people, and never had any problems as a good kid. And I really believe this…I would watch him care for people he didn’t even know.”
“I wish more people knew about my son’s heart and how much he cares for people,” Verda continued. “He is my son. I love my son, but I also look up to him and I respect him and I’m thankful for the man he is.”
“A lot of the drive and stuff like that that I have, the kind of guy I am, the competitive spirit…it’s all her,” Garland said, clearly emotional after hearing that. “There was a time in my life where, as a young man - 12-13 years old - she still hadn’t found my stepdad, and I knew that. Again, the Lord just always put it on my heart – never cause problems for your mom and do things to make her proud. I never said that to her, but boy it’s amazing that she sees that. Wow.”
“Yeah it’s my mom, but the way she phrased that…it’s unbelievable. What more could I say?”
Mike Garland has been through it all. The highest of highs – seven Big Ten Championships, seven Finals Fours and one National Championship - and the lowest of lows - growing up without a father, meeting him at age 42, losing him six weeks later…and to a lesser degree, taking the heat for a rebuilding stage and culture change at Cleveland State.
And yet, Mike is one of the most fortunate and blessed human beings on the face of the planet. He has a wonderful family, including a mother who instilled his strength in him, he’s an indispensible piece of one of the most successful college basketball programs ever, and he has the gift of being able to pass along help and advice to those who find themselves in shoes he once stood in himself.
So, what would Mike Garland tell those people in need of a helping hand?
“Number one…the bitterness is going to do nothing but set you behind; there’s nothing that holding a grudge or animosity towards the company who fired you, or the dad that left your life, can do. As a matter of fact, it’s all about you being a forgiving person.”
“God purposed us to go through adversity. Out of love and caring, there’s far more power than tasting anger and bitterness, and that’s the power that you have in you, controlled by you. It’s your choice to make your life, and the lives of other people around you, better. There are those of us that choose to do so, and then there’s those of us that choose not to.”
“I’m saying to everybody…choose life, choose to do it the better way, embrace a love and caring attitude, and you’ll see some changes in your life. You’ll see your life going in the right direction…I guarantee it.”
Mike Garland – son of Quentin and Verda…husband of Cynthia…father of Simone, Quentin and Michael Ray…grandfather of Simone, LaNyla, Jacqueline, Amanda and Jeremiah.
Mike Garland – 17 years as the Assistant Coach of the Michigan State Spartans.
Mike Garland – proof that it’s not about how many times you get knocked down, just as long as it’s one fewer than the number of times you get back up.
Mike Garland – champion.